The tradition of wearing evening dresses has been around for centuries. Evening wear for women, sometimes also known as court dress due to its creation at royal courts, has its origins in the 15th century with the rise of the Burgundian court and its fashionable and fashion-conscious ruler, the fabulously entitled Philip the Good.

Rich fabrics and bright colours were strictly the domain of the nobility with clothing as a signifier of social rank and status. The dawn of the Renaissance slowly changed this rigid social rank system, and allowed wealthy Patricians and merchants to visibly display their success. The art of weaving silk was firmly established in the Mediterranean around 1400, and as a result, silk weaves became fashionable for those who could afford them. Dresses for court balls and similar festivities were often made of intricately woven silk and trimmed with expensive furs to highlight the wearer’s social status.

Ivory silk satin evening gown with beaded cream net overlay, c. 1911.

The vibrant court life of the 16th and 17th centuries with its focus on art, literature and music created a fertile environment for feminine formal clothing. Elaborate dinners, dances and theatre productions allowed fashionable ladies to showcase their finery, making Italian Renaissance courts the pinnacle of style and elegance in Europe.

With the advent of the Baroque era, the focus began to shift to France and the court of Louis XIV. 17th century court dresses featured draped skirts with long trains, tight bodices, low necklines trimmed with lace, and embroidered, lace- and-ribbon-trimmed full sleeves. Rich silk weaves, such as satin, taffeta and velvet created luxurious gowns.

During the 18th century, a ball or evening dress was synonymous with court dress, as balls took place at court or in the palaces and salons of the nobility who copied the latest fashions at the courts. Starting with the late 18th century, the term “evening or ball gown” emerged, as balls and formal dances were no longer the sole domain of royals and aristocrats. The French Revolution had caused social upheaval, and firmly cemented the place of upper-middle and upper class citizens in society. A common silhouettes for evening wear, just as for day wear, was the high-waisted Empire or Regency dress. Evening versions featured lower necklines, short sleeves and elaborate fabrics and embroidery.

Evening styles changed dramatically during the 19th century, and evolved from the relatively simple classically inspired lines of the early decades to progressively fuller skirts and, at times, sleeves (1830s and 1840s) to sleeveless, low-necked gowns worn with gloves in the 1880s, to having a squared decolletage, a wasp-waist cut, and skirts with long trains in the 1890s.

The 19th century distinguished between relatively high-necked dinner gowns for formal dinners and soirees, evening gowns for dances and theatre events, and ball gowns for the most formal affairs including balls and the opera. During the Edwardian era, or Belle Epoque, the s-shaped figure was fashionable, which included a very narrow waist.

Immediately preceding and during World War I, lines became looser and more fluid as a precursor to the boyish silhouettes of the Twenties. During the Twenties, the hemlines of evening gowns rose and cuts were very simple to match the new life style of the Flapper era. The Thirties introduced bias cuts and artificial fibres. Along with the Empire cut, over the years the sheath, mermaid, A-line, and trumpet shapes became popular. Also, the dropped waist and princess styles were popular, depending on the era.

Today, the evening gown comes in different silhouettes and even lengths, but the full-skirted ball gown remains the pinnacle of formality. What is your favourite evening dress shape?

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